Unknown artist sues Taylor Swift for $42 million, takes advantage of U.S. copyright laws

Intellectual property laws exist to promote creativity and innovation. The concept of creators owning the rights to their content is important considering that the power to pass copyright legislation is explicitly granted to Congress in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, the men who wrote the Constitution were unable to foresee the culture of greed and laziness that would eventually become so prevalent in the nation they were founding. Individuals and corporations alike now see our copyright laws as nothing more than a way to take advantage of our legal system and get rich off of trivial ideas.

News recently broke that some guy named Jesse Graham is suing Taylor Swift for $42 million, claiming the lyrics to “Shake it Off” are similar to those of his 2013 song “Haters Gone Hate.” I can’t really tell you anything about Graham because he’s pretty much a nobody, but uhm… here’s his Myspace.

So does Graham have a case against Swift? The question is whether Swift’s lyrics, “Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play/ And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate… And the fakers gonna fake, fake, fake, fake, fake” are too “similar” to Graham’s lyrics (Bear with me here.), “Haters gone hater, playas gone play/ Watch out for them fakers, they'll fake you everyday.”

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Names, titles, or short phrases” are not protected under U.S. copyright law. But that doesn’t mean T-Swizzle is entirely safe. A 1976 suit between George Harrison and Bright Tunes Music set the precedent that a song can legally be considered plagiarism without necessarily being all that resemblant of the song that’s allegedly been copied. The landmark George Harrison case opened the door for a litany of other plagiarism lawsuits in the music industry.

Still, in order for Graham to win, he will probably need to prove that the authors of “Shake It Off” had “access” to “Haters Gone Hate.” The fact that “Haters Gone Hate” has the lowest possible popularity rating on Spotify (less than 1,000 plays) and only 43 plays on Myspace (one of which was me) probably indicates no one on Swift’s and her two writers credited on "Shake It Off" ever even heard the song. If Jesse Graham couldn’t even get his 1,000 biggest fans to each listen to the “Haters Gone Hate” just once, it’s not likely that Taylor or her professional songwriters listened to it, liked it and then plagiarized it.

Does Jesse Graham deserve $42 million simply because he borrowed a phrase from 2010 and then consulted a rhyming dictionary one year earlier than Taylor Swift did? Probably not.

While this case is probably nothing more than a publicity stunt, the abuse of U.S. intellectual property laws is still a major problem. There’s even a term for people who make their living doing it — “patent trolls.”

Apple is notorious for patenting basic design features (such as a “rectangle with rounded corners”), and then suing competitors (most notably Samsung) for making phones that are shaped like phones.

There are even entire companies that don't do anything except purchase patents for ideas they have no intention of using, and then sue businesses for doing stuff like having episodes of content, like podcasts, online.

The main reason why the abuse of intellectual property laws is primarily a U.S. problem is that the American Rule generally requires both sides of a civil suit to pay their own attorney's fees. In almost every other Western country, the loser pays for both sides' attorney's fees.

By switching to a more fair system, the U.S. can do a better job of allowing intellectual property laws to do what they were meant to do, which is encourage creativity, not hinder it.

Related Links:

Drawing the line between copyright and free knowledge

Tech Devil: Patent Trolls

Reach the columnist at cmfitzpa@asu.edu or follow @CodyFitzStories on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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